Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shias Of Haiti – A Pitiable Beginning

My 4 Days In Haiti

For almost three years, Ibraheem Al Mahdy, a Christian convert to Shia Islam some six years ago, has been pleading for me to visit his lot in Haiti. He says he reads my worldwide travel blogs, claims I will find lots to do for his pitiful country, painful people, please come. I finally find some time this month and decide to visit for a few days. Here are my travel notes, perhaps of some interest to you?

September 19:

American Airlines (AA) flight 1593 departing from Orlando to Miami is delayed 30 minutes and then another 20 minutes; gloom sets in, I know I will miss connecting flight from Miami to Port Au Prince (POP); I pray that one is delayed as well. High hopes. The (ancient) AA counter clerk bares false teeth in an insincere smile and shrugs her creaking shoulders Ask the people meeting this flight in Miami, they’ll assist ya. Sure enough, the POP bound flight is pulling off as we park next gate. Nobody is there to assist me; I walk a great distance to AA customer service counter. Another uncaring clerk, grinding on chewing gum as if there is no tomorrow, says next flight is tomorrow, at 6:20 AM. Because this was a technical delay, AA will put you up in a hotel, and give you food vouchers. 10 years earlier, I would have blown a fuse, but with age, (wisdom?) and patience catching up on me, I take it all in stride. I go to the hotel, call Ibraheem with the bad news, try to work on my book, see if I can squeeze few dollars from trading the FX market, eat fish for dinner and retire by 9.

September 20:

AA flight to POP is delayed yet again! An aircraft bathroom will not flush so a 30 minutes wait while a technician fumbles in there, whiffing up the unholy scent before we take off. We deplane to eardrum splitting music from a band, looking for money; some put change into a gaping hat. Immigration / customs is painless; I met a happy Ibraheem waiting outside. POP is very depressing, grimy, undisciplined and scary. A short taxi trip of less than 5 minutes to the domestic airport burns a $10 pocket hole. In Haiti, you see, one is either super rich or super, super poor; no middle class, virtually. I could have risked my life and walked the distance, but if I want a taxi, I pay; I could eat at a decent restaurant and dish out an average of $25, or risk my health and eat at a dhabba replica for $3…get my point? Ibraheem and I get to know each other, talk a lot, waiting for a 30-minute 11:45 flight to CAP-Haitian (CH), Ibraheem’s hometown. Ibraheem is 29, single. His grandma brought him up as dad went AWOL after he was born and mum, well, she lost it. His is intense with his religion and talks nonstop about Shia Islam and how positively it has impacted his life.

Tortug Air is a 17 seat Czech manufactured LET410 dual propeller aircraft; we board it to furnace-like heat inside; all of us begin to sweat profusely and robust body odor quickly mixes in with the heat and humidity. When the pilot does show up, he is furious with ground operations. How can you board the aircraft without the captain? He yells; there is not a peep out from any apprehensive of us. The co-pilot eventually comes, strolling leisurely from the decaying terminal building; without another word, the aircraft door is shut, engines started and we have a bumpy takeoff. Even at 27,000 feet, the aircraft remains hot and sticky. It takes a mere 27 minutes from takeoff to touchdown at CH.

Another 5-minute ride in a private taxi outside sets me back $10, airport taxi wanted double. If POP is grimy, CH is shoddier, my temperament gets progressively gloomier; I have to spend the next 2 days in this dump. The hotel is definitely not worth US$150 for a room; TV does not work, Internet WIFI does not work, fan does not work. The skies suddenly go very dark, like it is already night at 4PM and it starts raining. Lo, I thought rains in Mumbai, India were awful, this is evil; for 3 hours it pours, there is blinding nonstop lightning, heart thumping thunder and our room floods. We are moved to a better room, where the air conditioner actually works, TV works, 3 stations, all running American movies. Ibraheem says there is halal food readily available all over Haiti; I am intrigued. His perception of halal food turns out meat that is not from swine family, so poultry, lamb, beef is all okay to consume; he gets an earful from me, a 30 minute lecture on what he can or cannot eat as a Muslim. Poor guy, he looks clearly crestfallen, laments over and over about the sins he is committing; we eat fish.

September 21:

The alternative to pricy taxis is using your legs or a motorbike taxi. I could have walked but it is super hot and humid; just stepping out in the sun saps my strength and I feel immediately lethargic. Ibraheem flags a motorbike taxi and we are off to meet Ibraheems congregation. I am sandwiched between the sweat soaked rider and Ibraheem at the rear. OMG, I have never before prayed so intensely; the guy zips off as if possessed by some voodoo spirit, shrill horn blaring nonstop, cussing everybody along the way; I hold on to the sides of seat for dear life. CH roads are narrow with the entire sewer system running underneath it. Negligence, shoddy work, the earthquake, combination of all these perhaps has opened up huge gapping holes, one wrong move and you plunge into one for a rendezvous with human waste, all kinds; it takes 10 minutes of eternity to reach our destination.

The community worships in an open space up a slippery slope of a mountain, a tricky trek up, what with rains from yesterday mudding up the surface, strong stench of feces and urine creeping up my nose as I exert up. Children greet Ibraheem with Sallam Aleykum, some shout Allah Akber in a tune, probably mimicking the call to prayer that is cried out 5 times a day from the mountain top. I meet a ragtag group of about 20 Muslims, new converts to Shia Islam in various stages of salaat. Of them, Ibraheem, Bilaal, Abudhar and Luqmaan are veterans, Muslims for 6 plus years. They are all absolutely thrilled to meet me, wide, very white toothy grins testament of their happiness. After a 2-hour question and answers session on rules and laws of Islam, I am exhausted. I am not an aalim, all I say has to be translated to French / Creole, back again to English if there are further questions or clarifications. Although Ibraheem speaks reasonable English, it is very heavily accented and that causes frustrations both sides.

To say these people are poor is an understatement, yet they pool little recourses to surf the Internet, reading up on write-ups about Shia Islam. Over 3 years, they have struggled to build a mosque and a sorry looking foundation is taking shape. But they are now elated, I am here, first person to have visited them ever; one even calls me a prophet! Naturally, this is extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing. After promising to find them a donor for completing the mosque, we return to the hotel and wait out the day for our return to POP tomorrow. We eat more fish. But we also eat a wonderful dessert – a tiny green fruit they call Mamonsillo, very juicy and blissfully sweet. I have not seen this fruit anywhere else in the world; for those that know me, do so as a fruit maniac. We get a big bunch for free; a man goes up a tree and brings us some! I wolf down at least 50; Ibraheem watches me in amused astonishment.

September 22:

We stay at a POP hotel that is slightly better, eat more fish (I better not be fed fish for the next 20 years at home), visit an area that critically needs clean drinking water and take in rows and rows of tent homes, people still living in them since the devastating earthquake, pathetic and resigned, a depressing and heart wrenching sight. I am so blessed, have so, so much to thank for, alhamd’Allah.

I return home to Sanford via Miami next day, both AA flights delayed.

Photos here.

Note: You will not see photographs of women in this report – for a reason. I found most women in Haiti provocatively dressed, everything on show; not appropriate for audience of this blog.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jaane Kahaa Gayee Woh Din?

The earliest childhood memories I have are of my eldest sister Marhooma Kaneez Zehra (Bai), who was by then already a divorced single mother of two. She was not allowed to take her elder with her when her husband’s family earlier kicked her out pregnant. Bai was the pillar of our family after her return home; she was the one who (mainly) raised her son Mohammed, 5 months younger to me, and I. Those formative years were filled with happy, carefree days of frolic and play. Although we struggled as a family, economically, I do not remember a single day we went hungry, not one. There was plenty of food, good, wholesome and delicious that Bai and Mama toiled over charcoal stoves, cooking kebabs, samosas et al, catering for a majlis fateha or a marriage waleemo; their labors (mostly) ran our household.

The bond I shared with my other siblings was (nearly) as strong; we were a total of eight in the family, excluding my father who passed away when I was a toddler and sister Nazma who was married off much too early. We shared everything; joys, sorrows, successes, disappointments, worry. One person affected, others felt, like organs of one body. We shared a two-bedroom home and a downstairs toilet that was also shared with neighbors living there, that gives you an idea of bladder / rectum control powers we possessed in those days. Interestingly, this arrangement got us Razia Bhabhi, for it was calls of nature that fated my eldest brother Marhoom Mohammedreza to see and propose for her hand in marriage later on.

Obviously, I did not expect this bond to last and follow us all into adulthood. There was naturally some slippage as childhood turned into puberty, adulthood and separation, as we married and sought our own livelihood. We tragically lost Bai when she was merely 36, felled by ravaging cancer, her young life relentlessly mired in pain and heartache; I don’t believe I have been more devastated ever since. She was a person totally resigned to the will of Allah (S), steadfast in her faith, selfless in sacrifice and someone you could always go for solace and advise. I am convinced my personal live would have been very positively different had she been alive today.

Growing up in Tanga, Tanzania was, oh, so extraordinary. Back in the sixties and seventies, when sisal prices were at a premium, Tanga was a booming town. Mohammedreza and my cousin Habib Yusufali were managers on two sisal estates of Tongoni and Maroongu, not too far from Tanga town, but way out in the boonies nevertheless. Their more progressive homes (leftovers from the Wazungu managers that preceded them) offered picnic sanctuary for us Yusufalis / Mawjis and the clans would gather there on holidays for family get-together and feasting blasts.

The premium elementary school was Saint Anthony’s Catholic School. Students, irrespective of religion, attended church; I learnt a great deal about Catholicism and was amazed how much common Islam had with it, in principal. Our daily assembly / class prayer began with Our Father, Who Art In Heaven… The Sisters, some of them, were another matter however, probably sexually deprived, one even artfully molested me. It was years later I figured out reasons for her labored breathing as she sat me on her lap; I have never ever been rewarded with so many (wet) kisses for simply getting two plus two right. Except for Sister Mary Fabian, the dour looking Headmistress with an ever-ready bamboo cane she applied quite liberally. The first whack was always the most painful; it took all my willpower not to bawl in front of all the pretty girls. I would run to the stinking bathrooms and moan my ache away.

We Shia Muslims had a budding community, full of traditions and petty rivalry; everybody was nosy about everybody else. A neighbor would probably know what was to be served for dinner at home that night, even before the menu was decided. The mosque has nylon mats for carpets, they would hurt and leave furrows on knees and ankles after salaat; not that we cared, of course. Muharram and Ramadhan were favorite times with so much activity and so, so much more food. I bet no Jamaat can now match the pulau or kalyo-pau or kitchro coming out from Tanga mosque of those days. We reigned supreme during Aashoora and Arbaeen, our Juloos unmatched, with almost the whole town gaping at our beautiful taboot and tazeeyas.

I acquired elementary religious education through fear and discipline at the then dreaded madressa, where fooling around and or indiscipline were dealt with an iron fist. During Quraan classes, the Aagha whopped our feet with the mimbar microphone iron bar for not remembering homework sooras; in dinyaat class, some kids wet their pajamas if the teacher as much as raised his voice in anger or frustration. I realize some of you will suppose this to be exaggeration and if true, child abuse by Western standards. Perhaps. However, I can honestly claim I have achieved life discipline, clean living etiquettes and whatever I know and respect of my wonderful religion as a direct result of these madressa years. So may Allah bless you, my then hated teachers.

Secondary education at Popatlal Secondary School was blissful, even though Ujamaa policies of Julius Nyerere were grinding the country to bottomless ruin and abyss. Instead of studying, we were given a hoe and required to till the shamba at the back of the school. I had to attend multiple practice sessions of traditional dance performance for Saba Saba day, in front of a dreaded Area Commissioner because our grim faced Political Science teacher decreed I shook my behind suitably, like a proper African, better than any other Asian; Asians had to be integrated, and dance was one avenue I guess. I failed Political Science miserably.

But it was also a time when impressing girls was suddenly very important; so smart ironed clothes, gleaming shoes, a slick bicycle, the right haircut (I did have abundant hair then!) and an attitude took on much weight. And time. A trip to Raskazone seafront in fine attire on Sunday evenings could not be missed, nor a new released movie at the Majestic or Novelty.

I fell in and out of love with every girl who dared set eyes on me. Mister Ismail, my brilliant Form Two English teacher, to whom I confided about everything, always struggled with my overactive imaginations, sarcastically suggesting they was way beyond vivid. Unfortunately, Hindi movies shaped our perception to great extent; how we interacted with the opposite sex, what we wore and how we emoted, even. Me, I cried my eyes silly together with Sharmila Tagore after Rajesh Khanna died in Aradhna, laughed like a lunatic when Mehmood went Gantia Kha Ghantia and tried to imitate Jitendra’s every jumping moves of Humjoli. And I imagined myself besides every heroine, of course. Ha! You should have seen the Sharmila Tagore / Aasha Parekh beehive hairstyles on some of our ladies. Ha!

Cricket was a passion, of course; I captained the Popatlal School squad and opened medium pace bowling for the team. So was volleyball, where Tanga Jamaat were champions for a number of years. Swimming at Tanga Swimming Club every Sunday morning rounded off my sports exposure. Tanga Swimming Club still had some snobbish, colonial mentality White customers; it was fun to hurriedly use their towels after our swim and delight at their disgust when they discovered them damp. They complained but no meaningful punishment ensued; the Goan Manager, poor fellow, was caught in the middle of trying to pacify his dwindling White and please non-White customers. We were more in numbers; we won. I lost my dear friend Jaffer at a very tender age, who drowned swimming high tides one morning at that Club.

Upon completion of high school, it was decided I would go to Dubai where brother Marhom Husseinali was already somewhat established. Foreign exchange was very hard to get those days and Asians used (still do) every conceivable, bizarre, illegal ways to get hold of some. An arranged telex was send to my attention advising my son had committed suicide, and for me to rush to Pakistan urgently. An Indian clerk at National Bank of Tanzania looked me up and down, all eighteen years old, shook his head in disgust but processed British Pounds 150, the maximum Tanzania government would allow to be converted for attending to such a calamity.

Two days later, I took my first ever flight from Dar es Salaam to Karachi and then to Dubai. The rest is all history…

Jaane Kahaa Gayee Woh Din?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Inquisitive Mind Of Kramer Kramer

In appearance only, Kramer Kramer (real name altered) resembles Christopher Lloyd, the Reverend Jim Ignatowski character from television sitcom Taxi; raggedy, unkempt. My new home sales agent recommends him to me when I purchase my current home. Kramer is a very good handyman, suitable and thorough at almost all work he undertakes at home, from doing up Tasneem’s salon room to minor alterations or additions I want, his finished works a delight.

Tall, overweight, in rumpled clothes, thick hands carved heavy with incomprehensible tattoos, meeting Kramer for the first time is a bit intimidating. But he is an amiable character, once you get to know him, plenty of interesting tidbits to contribute about everything in general as he works along. He is originally from New York area, a staunch White Republican, an ex drugs addict, now reformed, former alcoholic, now sober but alas, a religious smoker. What strikes me most about Kramer is his inquisitive mind, with loads of questions about my background and culture, especially about the religion of Islam.

Listening to conservative radio talk show hosts the likes of extremely unpleasant Rush Limbaugh et al, have predictably, manipulated Kramer’s mind on Islam, so he is full of questions, loads of them. Some of our conversations go something like this:

What is Sharia law? Do you support it?
Well, Sharia law is a vast subject and I am not qualified enough to tell you a lot about it. Unlike US laws, for example, Sharia laws govern all aspects of a Muslim’s life, personal life, business practices, marriage laws, children’s rights, family inheritance and so on…
But do you support it?
I do, of course, as a Muslim, I do.
Hmmm, but we in the USA believe in the separation of church and state…
Oh, Sharia law is not applicable to non-Muslims.

Kramer makes a dour face.

Why are your wife and daughter all covered up? Do they dress up like this all the time? Are they not hot?
No, they are not covered up, they have to be modesty dressed and have their hair covered in front of strangers; they can uncover their hair in front of close family members. They maybe hot at times, but they must follow our religion.
I think women look beautiful uncovered, the less the better.

Kramer laughs out aloud and lowers an eyelid in a lazy, knowing wink.

Exactly why our religion wants them dressed the way they are! Keep them safe from prying eyes, yes?

The sour expression appears once more.

What? From dawn to dusk? No eating, drinking, even water? No sex? You gotta be insane Owlie!!! And your daughter as well??? God Owlie, that is so cruel, that is awful! In Gods name, why?!

We are discussing the holy month of Ramadhan, of course. The guy is so horrified and looks truly alarmed to know we don’t eat or drink during the day, with him gulping down gallons of cold water to replenish all his sweating, working in the furnace-like attic. Americans get tongue-tied with names like Yusuf Yusufali; I can relate many hilarious tales getting my name recorded with American institutions when I first set foot in this country some thirty years ago, but that is another story. So I settle for Ali except Kramer can’t (or won’t?) pronounce that either; so it’s Owlie. Owlie – sounds awful…

It is really matter of the mind. Once you make up your mind you are not eating or drinking until such time, your body adjusts. Why? Well this is a law ordained by God, not only to Muslims, but to Christians and the Jews as well, if you were to follow the Bible and Torah. I think God wants us to contemplate the hunger of less fortunate in this world. It is a month of connecting with God, purging your sins, asking for His mercy… Plus it is an excellent way to cleanse your body; drop some pounds as well.

Kramer looks at me dubiously but cringes somewhat as I look up and down his overweight body.

He is most respectful in and around the house however, always knocks before entering to make sure womenfolk are in hijab and promptly leaves the house when the call to prayers goes off from our prayer clock. He is also most intrigued with the holy Quraan, asks several questions on it. He wants to see what a mosque looks like so I ride in his dump one mile down the road to see Masjid Al Hayy under construction. It blows his mind.

Wow, Owlie, this is beautiful! Beautiful! Man! It is huge!

He shakes his head in astonishment.

You guys are really committed to your religion.

Do I hear a tiny twig of envy in his voice? I invite him to visit our current center sometimes, if he wants.

We have a wonderful preacher, a young guy with a lot of good things to say; he can answer a lot of your questions I could not. But let me know much in advance when you want to visit. Our preacher, although very good, makes many disappearing acts, so we need to plan it out.

Kramer agrees, says he had wanted to visit, even talked to another community member whose home he is repairing about a visit with his live-in girlfriend; she even agreed to cover her hair! But he is now single again, had a huge falling off with the girlfriend, whom he has had to evict from his home.

One day, he curiously reads a wedding invitation card sitting on the kitchen counter.

Hey Owlie, it says here someone dead has invited you. How can a dead person invite you to anything?

Kramer points out the words in the card… Late xxx and Late xxx Requests The Honor Of Your Presence…

I scratch my (barren) scalp, stumped.

Kramer loves dogs; goes on and on about his pet dogs that he says will lick you to death. Now, I am unsure about being licked to death by any animal but I am fond of dogs as well, so is Maaha Zainab. I explain Muslims consider dogs unclean and are not allowed, by religious law, to keep them in the house, the nose is considered unclean, they smell everything. This infuriates Kramer, for he looks at me as if I had assaulted, insulted him.

Unclean, eh? Hmmm…

He wags his head in despair, rolls his eyes to the heavens.

How about cats, are cats allowed?

I respond enthusiastically, almost shout, so happy to share a common animal Islam allows me to domesticate.

Owlie, did you know, cats are even dirtier than dogs? And they, too, sniff at everything? A dog will whimper and let you know he needs to pee or shit and run out to do his business. A cat, they are a nasty. They will either pee or shit on your carpet and stink up a storm…

I scratch my (barren) scalp, stumped, a dour look on my face.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Sneak Preview


I was born a manhoos; ill-fortuned is the closest English translation, the verdict decreed by our next door neighbor Ramjanbhai, when I was born. This recount came from Salma, when I was old enough to understand what the word meant. My dislike for Ramjanbhai, and his for me, proceeded long before I understood the meaning of the word. I made rude sounds from my mouth whenever he passed by our house, sounds I heard him let out from both ends of his body constantly, even through the thin, porous walls that separated our hovels, for Ramjanbhai suffered from a severe case of flatulence. My insults drove him wild, for he attempted an assault on my nimble self, only to give up moments later, heaving, coughing, muttering obscenities and curses. He then went complaining about my awful behavior to either Abbu or Salma, but they paid him no mind.

Ramjanbhai was not technically wrong for calling me a manhoos, for I am one really, if you hold those kinds of viewpoints. My Ammi, you see, ceased breathing at about exactly the same moment I commenced life; a bad omen for everybody in the family, more so for our neighbors and almost everybody in our basti who knew my family. Many relatives and some of our neighbors, like Ramjanbhai, who made a fuss every time we met, shunned me. About a week after I was born, a major fire destroyed much of slum settlements just two rows beyond our house and the local government, instead of helping rebuild these homes, brought out bulldozers and flattened everything left standing. The destroyed homes were illegal, said the local municipal commissioner, the local authorities were just polishing up what nature had taken care of. So you see, my birth was not an auspicious event.

My immediate family, except for my dad, did not care and loved me unconditionally, especially Abbu and Salma. Tabu was of a different nature, not prone to much emotion, busy with fashion, boys and Bollywood pursuits. Baarish did not comprehend the meanness of the whole affair. Abbu doted on me, for he saw his future linage in me, the only male descendent worthy of mention, for he had expunged his son from memory. My world of comprehension began with Abbu as I followed him around when he was not selling fruits at the market. Salma fed and cleaned me then, but it was Abbu who meant the world to me. I remember the first time he tried to make me to go pee, when I was about three years old.

'You have to go pee, Salman.'


'You drank a whole glass of sugarcane juice and you been sucking ice all day, you must go pee. I don't want you peeing in your chuddies and on my bed. Then I'll have to wash everything before I say my prayers and Salma will yell at you for making me use up all the water. Hurry up, let's get you to pee.'

'No, no, nooooo...'

'I'll buy you the red lollipop you like...'

We stared at each other; I wanted to make sure I was not being set up. Abbu was a man of his words so this was not a bad deal at all. It's not that I didn't want to go pee, but proper toilets were at least half a mile away and the corner shed we used for peeing stunk real wicked.

'Will Abbu go pee with me?'

Abu looked at me in astonishment but then smiled. 'I'll buy you two lollipops if you go pee, else I'll have Salma take you and no lollipops.'

Salma, although always nice and kind to me, had a temper when things didn't go her way. She had tons of things to do around our house and pee cleaning was not something she had on regular schedule. So I ran outside, tangy taste of strawberry flavored lollipops already on my tongue, ahead of Abbu and dropped the loose cloth piece that served as my training diaper. Suddenly, the force on my bladder was unbearable and I would have let go standing but Abbu pushed me down squatting and I peed and peed, like the proper Muslim gentleman Abbu was training me to become.

Later on, Abbu returned with the two lollipops he had promised and I went pee again, in a controlled manner, squatting like a gentleman, exactly the way Abbu wanted me to. The lollipops were a super treat and I made a meal of them both; Salma gave Abbu disapproving looks as I always fussed at dinner and Tabu sulked because she got only one lollipop. As always, I finished the lollipops and carefully licked all sugar crystals from the wrappings. Abbu always found this greediness strangely endearing and so it was that day as well. He scooped me up in him arms and hugged me, planting kisses all over my face, I twitching and squealing in ticklish delight.

'What did Salmaan do today?'

I said, 'Pee pee.'

Book One - Chapter One

Abbu would swipe dust off from a solid empty wooden crate with a flick of his withered wrist, carefully lay a frayed rag on it and gratefully sit down, easing pain from aging, inflamed joints of his feet.

'Bolo, bolo,' he would shout at the top of his voice, adding to the chorus of cries from others around, 'fresh fruit and subzi, cheap fruit, cheap subzi. Best pick from this morning, tomatoes, only eight rupees a kilo.' Only his voice would quaver with age and not carry as loudly as others around us. Bolo was the first word I remember in my life, even before I learned how to walk.

Before I started attending school, Abbu made sure I accompanied him to the market every morning, placing me atop a wheelbarrow full of fruit and vegetable picked from trees in the backyard or bought wholesale from vending women who sold their pick early in order to return to their villages in time for tilling land or other household labors.

'He will grow up to be a fine man, you'll see, a doctor or an engineer,' he would explain with a toothy grin to anyone who cared to listen, pointing to me as I sat in a smaller version of his chair, only this one was upturned and hallow, padded by cast off rags for my yet to develop bones and softer skin. Actually 'Abbu,' was the first word I uttered and 'bolo' came a close second. By the time I was three, I could repeat that whole pattern of Bupu's sales pitch word for word.

Nobody from my family knew exactly what date I was born. My father was out and about, probably in Surat where rumor was he had taken on a second wife and my mother died before I took my first gulp of air. Abbu thought it was a Friday and he was certain it was either in October or November as everybody was in a buying frenzy for Diwali festivals. I am still unsure of the year but I reckon that's really not very important.

As I mentioned before, Mummy, or Ammi as the rest of my family refer to her, died on the same bed I was conceived. As a child, I always wondered how a person could die giving birth seeing many mothers still alive and felt guilty about Ammi dying on my birthday. I learnt a lot about her from my sister Salma, who went on and on about what a wonderful person she was, how she sacrificed everything for her family and got no peace from her husband, our father. He, I was told, was bekaar, useless, a sot, a drunkard. He worked when he was sober, which was rare, spent money on woman and booze and came home only when he ran out of money and could not find a free bed companion.

My family comprised of two sisters; Salma, the eldest, who was nine years older than I and Tabu, short for Tabassum, four years older. We also had an infant aptly named Baarish, whom Abbu had very reluctantly taken in only when it seemed certain she would die from the lashings of monsoon rains beating upon her frail body. She was left abandoned outside our door one thundery July morning. These ages I am approximating, nobody knows for sure; they could be a year older or younger. Except for Baarish, of course. She was an infant then, probably not more than six months old with lungs, I thought, of a grown up, the way she sometimes bawled nonstop. She would turn crimson crying in colic pain and rage, only to be quieted after agonizing long periods of Salma's cooing and hip bumping, few farts and burps later.

We all lived in a two-room hovel close to a filthy stream that cut right in the middle of our slum community called Naroda Patiya. This hovel had tin roof that leaked profusely during monsoons, flooding the floor, making a mess of everything and leaving Salma in a disagreeable disposition almost the entire three months or so; she did most of the cleaning and was fussy about how the interior of our palace looked and felt, never mind the ruin and decay outside. During the super hot months between March and June, it was an oven, which left all of us near naked and short tempered, especially Tabu, as the heat and humidity would create havoc on her cheap makeup. We considered our two ceiling fans luxury; both antiques that wobbled and creaked dramatically but miraculously, never gave way. We had neighbors across the stream, on the left, right, and above our box home.

The walls were so thin, I could hear Ramjanbhai repeatedly fart and burp from next door, even through the complaining fans. I also heard other sounds that I could only figure out much later in life, Ramjanbhai's son and daughter-in-law making love. Abbu, who slept alone in one room because he was a light sleeper, would bang at the wall and shout at them to shut up while Salma would giggle knowingly. The four of us were packed together in the other room. Our bedroom was reduced even further as a comer of it was used for cooking and stacking dishes. We had no running water so the girls woke up very early every morning and hurried outside with pails to stand in line at the public supply; the water stopped running by the time the sun rose. The bathrooms were outside, a block away; ten families shared ours. We considered it very lucky if we ever found one empty and a wait of half hour or more was not uncommon. Visitors, these were few and far apart, who come to our house were revolted by the stench from the sewer stream outside; I found that odd as a young boy; why, it did not bother me at all.

Abbu, who worked a small garden that we owned at the back of our hovel, vended the yields in a corner spot outside Parekh Brothers, a banya shop at the center of Naroda Patiya market. By the time I was old enough to crawl out of my box seat next to Abbu's, I realized he was much respected and admired, not only for his selling skills, but also for his honesty and integrity. Abbu, you see, hailed from Jamnagar, in our state of Gujarat. He was a son of a zameendaar, a landowner, rich and powerful in his own right. But fate and an emotional heart were unkind to him, for he fell in love with and impregnated a Hindu maiden from Kutch. This act, in his youth days, was like writing a death sentence on your life. The enraged father of girl rallied his community and began planning for Abbu's execution while his father cut him off all assets and family wealth. Abbu escaped with his unwed pregnant 'wife' and ended up in our slum of Naroda Patiya.

In contrast, Akber, my father, or just bekaar admi, as Salma called him, hardly ever worked. The little he earned was spent on cheap brew at dingy haddas and on women. When he did come home, he was always in a foul mood, ready with a quick whack to the back of our heads for no apparent reason.

If it hadn’t been for Abbu, I would never have attended school. Jaffery English Elementary School was about a mile away, in a plot of land that was always impeccably clean and well maintained even though the main open sewer lane of Naroda Patiya ran right behind it, exposing all to a terrible stench and a frightening eyesore. In fact, it was the only building for miles around that had a decent coat of paint. I attended school but there was not much teaching in the classrooms. I sat at my depilated desk that wobbled so much I had to hold it upright most times and listened to our class teacher yell at us, banging a menacing looking cane on his desk to silence the class.

Preeti, only daughter of Harshad Parekh, one of the brothers who owned Parekh Brothers, sat one row ahead of me in class. She always smelled of Lifebuoy soap and coconut oil oozed from her scalp. She was quite clever and snotty, which bugged the hell out of me. She had a nasty habit of turning around and sneering at me whenever she correctly answered a question or when she got all her homework right. I pulled her oily pigtails in punishment whenever she did that. She cried and complained to our class teacher sometimes and I either got caned or was made to kneel in front of the class for hours, glaring at her while plotting revenge I knew I could never follow through.

Two o’clock in the afternoon was my favorite time of the day when the rusty bell in the play yard would clang, signaling the end of classes. I would jump up, not caring if my desk toppled over and together with other children, jam the doorway in a gleeful attempt to flee the confines of the room. I would run all the way to Naroda Patiya Central Market and try to squeeze into the box crate that was now much too small for me. From there, I would then polish all fruits to a glossy shine.

In case you are scratching your head wondering what this is all about, please dont fret. This is a preface and part of Book One - Part One from my second novel (title still being debated in my head) that is slated for completion and eBook publishing (all profits to benefit Comfort Aid International, off course!) end of 2011, insha'Allah. I am looking for feedback really, good and bad, hopefully more good? If you do care to comment, please do so to email I will really appreciate it.

Allah bless and thank you.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Khoja Kiswahili Paradise

It is now over three months since I move my family from India to the accusing (towards Cuba maybe?) pinky finger landmass of Florida in the USA. This change has been quite agreeable off course, especially for the children. Maaha Zainab relishes her fifth grade class and new friends; Alihussein is already stressing out with college classes, Tasneem busy messing around with her salon while I try to juggle the forex market. And CAI, off course. Gone are the days of squatting dogs and humans on streets, days of toenail curling pongs, of mind-boggling, undisciplined, punishing, traffic snarls. No frightening drunken Ganeesh parades or nasty (and dangerous) color dousing startles at Holi festival. I do miss the mango madness though…

Here in Orlando, lives my community of East African Khoja’s, a group most unique, in many aspects. You can trace our ancestry well over a hundred years to the general area of Gujarat, in India. The entrepreneurial spirit in our blood propelled us to Africa, where we prospered, many from illegitimate wealth from magendo business transactions, a practice active till this very day, encouraged by governments steeped in contradicting and confusing, corrupt-friendly laws. These laws, resulting in political uncertainty, (some) lawlessness, inept education, health and other infrastructure systems, drove us to migrate again, to shores of Europe and North America. We live here now, as good law abiding citizens (if, when and where short cuts and magendo practices are not quite possible - without detection).

We are a hearty bunch, generally, and nostalgic to everything that is remotely East African, the general area from where we lived before migrating to the US. The desire and will to ape everything cultural from back home is very apparent; from Kiswahili kofia and khanzu worn at the mosque, mbarazi and mandazi served on Sunday mornings after salaat, the Kiswahili language (with quite a bit of colorful matusi at baraaza time) to very strong entrepreneurial desire for wealth and success. Wealth, mind you, that is generously donated to those poor and destitute all over the world.

I was not want of choice for cities to move; I could go back to Houston TX off course, but after living in that gigantic city on and off for 28 years, I was ready for a change. I, however, chose Orlando. People have (generally) good things to say about this particular community in SE USA. The various activities for children at the religious center, including a vibrant madressa, an agreeable warm tropical weather, reasonable real estate market and more importantly, a compatible cultural mindset makes Orlando an ideal choice.

Holy, blessed month of Ramadhan has just ended, and what a delight it was to be able to attend salaat, partake in shared iftaar arranged by HIC, the traditional practice of Quaraan recitation, dua Iftetah and lectures by invited specialists. I did not realize how much I had missed this very Kiswahili Khoja type of arrangements all these years in Texas and India! Now that it is over, Maaha Zainab laments she misses her Madressa workshops; I miss the exotic kitumbua, mkate mimina, kalemati…yum, umh, yum…, no wonder I did not loose the body mafuta I had hoped.

HIC was alive with prayer and activities, beginning with children’s workshops, Quaraan recitation, magreeb / ishaa salaat, scramble for iftaar, short baraaza outside with (almost all) men relishing their first puffs, choice of meetha, khaara or khimaam pan and colorful Kiswahili conversation. One man in particular had a peculiar habit of breaking out in an ancient, loud Bollywood stanza from eras gone by… Lectures followed in English by our own educated Khoja young aalims, occasionally brilliant, at times humdrum and sometimes outright corny; encouraging start? It was heartwarming and huge relief to see Abdul Jaffer on his feet once again after giving us a nasty scare. I missed a week due to commitments towards our starving brethren at Somalia / Kenya border…

The Eid crescent was mercifully locally sighted, so recurrent controversies were avoided, even though the actual day was observed worldwide spanning three separate days! Tuesday for us in Florida, Eid day, was spent meeting, hugging families, friends, and (alarmingly) watching a pile of dollars thin out dolling Eidy to children. It was another (gastronomical) struggle at HIC with neehara for breakfast and (calorie galore) heaps of mutton biryani for dinner; ah, what would we be without the parbaaros. Not that I complain, mind you.

I see a bright future for us Khojas of Orlando. We are a growing community with an intact, traditional outlook, albeit progressive one hopefully. And we are going to grow, no doubt, insha’Allah, what with the massive new Masjid Al Hayy coming up soon, not more than a mile from home.

Yes, the decision to move here to Orlando Florida was the right one. Alhamd’Allah.